Since 2007, no team that went on to win the NBA championship finished worse than seventh in defensive rating (points allowed per 100 possessions) during the regular season.
The Toronto Raptors, while not to be confused for a title contender just yet, once featured a defensive unit capable of shutting down the league's elite, finishing 2013-14 ranked ninth in efficiency at 102.4.
None of that carried over to 2014-15, though, with the Raptors dropping all the way to 23rd (104.8). It became clear that a majority of players on the team were incapable of executing on the defensive end, which was surprising considering a large percentage of the roster returned from the year before.
Toronto's defensive woes culminated in a meltdown of epic proportions during the postseason, losing four straight games in the opening round to the Washington Wizards after giving up an average of 110.3 points on 48.2 percent shooting.
“It’s not acceptable how we finished and I hold myself accountable," said general manager Masai Ujiri during his year-end press conference, per David Shum of Global News. "We’re going to look at coaching, managing, we’re going to look at players.”
Lou on Offense, Boo on Defense
As potent as the Raptors were scoring the basketball, there was no way they were going to advance in the playoffs until major changes were made. Dwane Casey is viewed as a defensive-minded head coach, but if he doesn't have the talent capable of running his schemes, how effective can he be without the proper tools at his disposal?
Lou Williams, the winner of the NBA Sixth Man of the Year Award this past season, was one of the main culprits behind Toronto's defense failure. His 15.5 points elevated the second unit to respectable levels, yet he was a huge liability on defense, making him expendable this summer when the team declined to give him a new deal.
Doug Smith of the Toronto Star believes Williams' trigger-happy nature created a negative ripple effect through the roster, turning the players' attention away from defense:
But as teams evolve – and I’m going to mimic Dwane right now and suggest this team is very much a work in progress – and the evolution was never going to include Lou.
Sure, he could score and take a lot of shots and was effective in some combinations but the liabilities at the other end really took ‘em out of a lot of games.
But the thing, more than anything, was the “culture” that pervaded the team because his presence so diametrically changed what they did the year before.
I think teammates saw him loading it up and felt they could do the same, I think that’s why some of the ball movement left the offence and I think Dwane got a bit caught up in it, too, and things went a bit sideways.
Williams had a defended field-goal percentage of 72.8 percent on shots from less than six feet, which is a 15.2 percent difference over what the shooter would normally hit in those scenarios. His 6'1", 175-pound frame prevented him from checking anyone other than opposing point guards, which also consistently proved too much for him.
"I think they wanted to go in a different direction and become more of a defensive-minded team," Williams told Alex Kennedy of Basketball Insiders. "With the way that the playoffs ended, I think it left a sour taste in management’s mouth and they went out and picked up defensive players."
Turning the Raptors' defensive fortunes around began on draft night with the taking of point guard Delon Wright at No. 20 out of the University of Utah. That selection came on the heels of Ujiri sending Greivis Vasquez, another guard guilty of horrid defensive stretches, to the Milwaukee Bucks for a protected 2017 first-round pick and the rights to Norman Powell, who is currently tearing it up in the Las Vegas Summer League.
Jonathan Givony of DraftExpress praised Wright's defensive intangibles prior to the draft:
Wright's best attribute from a NBA standpoint is likely his defense. He has quick feet, excellent instincts and a scrappy nature, putting outstanding pressure on the ball. His instincts for getting in the passing lanes and overall timing for making plays off the ball is extraordinary, helping him average an outstanding 2.6 steals per-40 minutes pace adjusted in his two seasons at Utah, with a ton of blocks and rebounds thrown in for good measure.
Wright's anticipation skills are off the charts, and he does it without gambling in the passing lanes excessively, but rather by simply sniffing out when to help out teammates, and when to make a reflexive play as a sort of free safety. He's big enough to guard either backcourt spot, which gives his team coveted positional flexibility that is very much in demand in today's NBA.
Wright would have presumably been penciled in as No. 2 on the depth chart behind Kyle Lowry, although thrusting a rookie into a starting role should the Raptors' All-Star floor general miss time may have been asking too much.
That problem was rectified with the recent signing of Cory Joseph, who reportedly agreed to a four-year, $30 million deal.
Joseph is a solid two-way combo guard with four years of valuable experience playing under the tutelage of the great Gregg Popovich. Joseph being born in Canada adds a special touch to the "We The North" movement. Although Ujiri was gung-ho on bringing Canadian talent to the roster, his nationality is merely an added bonus.
With Joseph on the floor, the Spurs posted a defensive rating of 98.3, which is two points better than when he was on the sidelines (100.3). The 23-year-old also had the eighth-best defensive real plus-minus rating amongst point guards at 0.93.
William Lou of Raptors Republic went into detail on why Joseph will bring more to the table on defense than someone like Vasquez ever did:
In other words, Joseph is a huge defensive upgrade over Vasquez. Joseph is lightyears ahead in terms of foot speed. Casey’s defense starts at the point of attack, and while conceding the middle on pick-and-roll is often encouraged, it doesn’t necessarily mean dribble penetration is tolerated. The key to bridging that gap is hustle, to have the willingness to swim over screens and stay attached at the hip so that a big doesn’t need to switch, or double. Vasquez and Kyle Lowry failed at this. Joseph won’t.
A Dog in the Fight
Drafting Wright and signing Joseph were under-the-radar additions; however, bringing aboard DeMarre Carroll, who becomes the biggest free-agent signing in franchise history, was the move Toronto needed.
For three long seasons, the Raptors coaching staff and fanbase have played the waiting game with 24-year-old Terrence Ross, hoping he'd grow into a consistent three-and-D weapon at the 3 spot. Patience is a fragile thing, and with Ross not showing substantial improvement since entering the league, it was finally time to cut the cord and replace him in the starting lineup.
Carroll immediately becomes the Raptors' best perimeter defender, which maybe isn't saying much. As Eric Koreen of the National Post acknowledges, having the former Atlanta Hawk in the lineup will allow DeMar DeRozan to defend smaller wings, leaving tougher assignments for the more adept Carroll to tangle with on a nightly basis.
He's already begun embracing the "Junkyard Dog" nickname, which has unofficially been passed down to him by former Raptor Jerome Williams. Some of Williams' calling cards were his limitless energy and hard-nosed approach to the game, which Carroll shouldn't have any issue replicating. It's that kind of player who wouldn't have taken the whooping that came from the Wizards lying down.
Let's Get Defensive
While not official, the Raptors are also set to sign center Bismack Biyombo to a reported two-year, $6 million contract.
In 64 appearances last season for the Charlotte Hornets last season, Biyombo averaged 1.5 blocks in just 19.4 minutes of action per game, which is 0.3 points higher than Jonas Valanciunas (1.2), who led the Raptors in rejections.
The 22-year-old offers little on offense, which won't cause much of a stir in Toronto as the team rarely runs its offense through the post anyway. Biyombo has awful hands and zero presence with his back to the basket. So as long as he can protect the rim in limited minutes, he'll have some value.
The coaching staff is also getting injected with some defensive know-it-all, as the Raptors have hired former Chicago Bulls assistant coach Andy Greer to be in charge of the team's defense, Yahoo Sports' Adrian Wojnarowski reported.
Greer worked under Tom Thibodeau during his five-year stint in the Windy City, helping create one of the NBA's more feared defensive units. It helped that he had players like Joakim Noah, Jimmy Butler and Taj Gibson at his disposal, though. It will be interesting to see if Greer can incorporate similar philosophies and systems in Toronto.
The onus now falls on Casey to gather the troops and get the Raptors playing winning basketball with a mix of both offense and defense. It can't be one-sided anymore.
He was given a second chance after a miserable end to the 2014-15 campaign. Ujiri went out and scoured the free-agent market for players who could defend, giving his head coach everything he needs to be successful.
There are no more excuses. If this doesn't work, Casey will find himself on the outside looking in.
Defense wins championships. For the Raptors, defense has to win a playoff series.
Christopher Walder is a featured columnist for the Toronto Raptors at Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter at @WalderSports.